When did Chinese religion start?
People prayed to many different gods in ancient China. Some of these gods have been worshipped since the Shang Dynasty (about 2000 BC). Some have probably been around even longer, since the Stone Age. Other Chinese gods became popular later on.
Chinese weather gods
Some of these gods are representations of the weather or natural forces like the sun or the moon or the rain. For instance, the goddess Ba, the daughter of Heaven, is a personification of drought. (She’s what drought would look like, if drought were a person.) Yu-huang is a sky god. Fei Lian and Feng Po Po are wind gods. Lei-Kung and Lei-zi are the gods of thunder and lightning. Heng O is the moon goddess.
Gong gong is the god of disastrous floods. Han is the god of the Han river. There were many such minor gods, each responsible for a particular river or mountain. Hou Ji is the god of millet, an important food in northern China.
Gods of abstract ideas
Sometimes people made abstract ideas into gods. Cai-shen was the god of prosperity. You could pray to Cai-Shen for success in business, for instance. Fan-kui is the god of butchers, and Sun-pi is the god of cobblers (shoe-makers). Fu-xing is the god of happiness, and Gong De Tian is the goddess of luck. Wei-tuo is the god of teaching.
Chinese gods protect you from harm
Tsao Wang is the god of your hearth, who watches over your house. Every year he reports on how you have behaved. He brings you good luck if you have been good and bad luck if you have been bad.
Some gods are based on Taoist ideas, like the eight gods of the Ba Xian (or Pa Hsien), who represent eight ways of being human: being young, being old, being poor, being rich, being a peasant, being powerful, being a boy, and being a girl. (The way these are organized into opposites reflects the Taoist idea of yin and yang).
Other Taoist gods are Bixia Yuanjin, the goddess of dawn and childbirth, and Chu Jiang, a god of the dead in the underworld. Some are based on great victorious generals, actual men who people remembered in this way. Guanti, the Taoist god of war, was a real general of the Han Dynasty.
Chinese Buddhist gods
Some Chinese gods are great Buddhists of the past, who are now in Heaven. Dha-shi-zhi, for example, broke the cycle of reincarnation with her great love, and now welcomes souls to Heaven in the form of flowers. Di-Cang is a great Buddhist who releases the souls of the dead from the underworld. Guanyin is a goddess of mercy, who helps childless women.
The Gods and Goddesses of Ancient China, by Leonard Everett Fisher (2003). . One page for each god, with lots of pictures and some historical context.
Five Heavenly Emperors: Chinese Myths of Creation, by Song Nan Zhang (1994). Stories .
Chinese Mythology A to Z, by Jeremy Roberts (2004).
Dragons and Demons : Myths of China, by Stewart Ross (1998). A few Chinese stories, retold .
Dragons, Gods and Spirits from Chinese Mythology, by Tao Sanders (1983). More of a child’s encyclopedia.